Savina Yannatou brings together several worlds that seldom collide. In fact, if you drew a Venn diagram of where the spheres of Mediterranean folk, classical music, and free jazz improvisation intersected, you might find her all alone with the intrepid Primavera En Salonica in it. It’s a small, eclectic corner, but well worth visiting, as she and her six-person band explore the interstices of tradition and free experiment, classical capabilities, and folk simplicity.
Yannatou herself is Greek, born in Athens and trained as a vocalist at the National Conservatory. Still, the music on this disc is not limited to any single tradition. The folk source material for these tunes comes from all over the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
The haunting opener, “Sareri Hovin Mernem”, for instance, is based on an Armenian song, its singer mourning the disappearance of her beloved. The cut begins with a ringing bell, and then Yannatou is off, her high, tremulous soprano tracing the melancholy curves of the song. Her voice shows the discipline and range of classical training, but none of the flourishes. Instead, she sings in a simple, straightforward way that keeps the tune at the forefront. The main embellishment is an occasional flaring and fluting of the notes that seems to suggest suppressed weeping. Yannatou’s singing is the heart of this piece, but she is enmeshed in a web of lilting, rhythm, the non-Western twang of plucked oud, the breathy tones of nay (a kind of flute), the pound and sway of drums.
Later, on “Smilj Smiljana”, based on a Serbian tune, Yannatou’s arranger Kostas Vomvolos takes a large role, his accordion framing her clear, emotionally-laden voice. The tone, in this and most other songs on the CD, is somber, though there are moments of frolic. “Za lioubih maimo tri momi”, a Macedonian folk tune, is a light-footed reel of violin, winds, and syncopated drums. Yet slipped into this nearly-Celtic whirl, you’ll hear bits of extended vocal technique and free improvisation, a wild eruption of modernism out of a very traditional setting.
That urge to push the boundaries reaches its peak in the new piece “O Yannis kai o drakos”, a free-jazzy meditation on scraps of Greek folk melody. Here Yannatou incorporates pants and gulps and shrieks into her vocal style, against an austere backing of double-bass plucks and slow-building accordion. It is more jazz than folk – and hardly world music at all. Later on “Perperouna”, the band bridges these two styles, with the free blurts and blasts of nay and bass twisted around a sinuous melody. It’s the best cut on the disc, and all the better for coming just after the blah touristiness of “Addio Amore.”
These two tracks, the first a dull, literal reworking of an Italian grape harvest song, the second a brave journey through alternately-rhythmed realities, show exactly what Yannatou, and her band, Primavera En Salonico, have to do to succeed. Yes, there are lovely melodies to be had in the world, and fascinating instruments to wrap around them. Still that sort of music gets performed at every cultural center in every mid-sized town on the Mediterranean. Making the songs new again, exploding their boundaries, infusing them with later day meaning…that’s more difficult. To its credit, Primavera En Salonico accomplishes this more often than not, on this fascinating, unclassifiable disc.